Sunday, January 15, 2017

The 2017 relevance of the story shown in "Hidden Figures"

Last night I saw the movie Hidden Figures with my best friends Dan and Joe, a true-event-inspired movie focused on a group of women who worked behind-the-scenes at NASA in the 1960s to help assure the first manned space flight was a success, just when it otherwise seemed doomed to failure. 

Even more noteworthy than the fact this group was female is the fact they were black. While I’m sure a lot was glossed over from the real lives of the three main characters, the movie felt balanced enough in its portrayal of their biggest obstacles and how they gradually overcame them that the movie succeeded in making its point about the good that comes from prioritizing people’ humanity and their talents over value-judgements about their color. 

The timing of this movie is apropos for so many reasons, the most recent being the upcoming Women’s March in Washington, D.C., which will take place the day after the presidential inauguration. Rather than being a protest against the new president, this march is intended to revive and bring the women’s rights movement into the 21st century. 

One particular theme in this revival is making the women’s rights movement all-inclusive, whereas it has historically focused on the needs and priorities of white women. For example, one article I read last week pointed out that immigrant women are likely to be more concerned with the threat of deportation than they are about reproductive choice, and black women who have already been working hard at difficult and often demeaning jobs for generations have different employment-related concerns than fighting for the right to “work outside the home.” 

While the events of Hidden Figures happened over half a century ago, the experiences of Katherine Jackson, Mary Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughn are an excellent example of many of the differences in priorities that still exist today, just in more subtle forms. This is especially apparent in the interactions between these three and the white women in the movie, who, despite still facing plenty of sex-based discrimination and job-choice barriers themselves, treat their black female co-workers just as badly as the white men do. 

Worse yet, some of the white women in the film, just as many white people still are today, were deluded about the true nature of their own feelings and beliefs; the best example of this is when the white supervisor tells Mrs. Vaughn after continually insulting her as a worthy candidate for supervisor because of her “colored” status, that she really has “nothing against” Mrs. Vaughn or her team of “colored computers.” Mrs. Vaughn’s bold reply clearly states that she knows the woman is not only lying to Mrs. Vaughn but to herself. 

This movie really brought home the horrible realization of how recently these disgraceful conditions existed—my parents were teenagers when people of color still had to use separate bathrooms—in a way that short, few-second video clips of Civil-Rights-Era sit-ins and arrests never have. The acting in this movie was such that I could easily emotionally connect with the characters, despite the poignant reminder that, regardless of how much sexism I still face today, as a white woman I have always been able to take for granted that I am completely immune to most of what these women—and women of color today—have been burdened with for centuries. 

While many white people argue that white people are subject to racism as well, vlogger Kat Blacque makes the point in her YouTube videos that when white people face race-based discrimination, they do not suffer any lasting social, political, or employment-related harm, because society has always been set up to take their side. When people of color experience the same treatment, it has a direct impact on their social standing, how they are treated by the legal system, and/or their employment status. 

I told Dan and Joe that I wish this movie would be shown at any preparatory events for the women’s march in Washington; it could go a lot farther toward instilling empathy in white women than being told to “check their privilege” does. This is especially true for the majority of white women who, regardless of how much personal experience they do have with institutionalized misogyny, have never looked far enough outside their own experience to really understand what that phrase means, and just how much that privilege has protected them from.


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Image: Detail from "Refresh and Gladden My Spirit" by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor and Sharpie marker

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